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An image of Swimming before school by Ian Abdulla

Ian Abdulla

(Australia 1947 – 29 Jan 2011)

Language group
Ngarrindjeri, Southern Riverine region
Swimming before school
Place of origin
Murray River RegionSouth AustraliaAustralia
Media category
Materials used
synthetic polymer paint on canvas

239.5 x 160.0 cm stretcher

Signature & date
Signed and dated l.r. corner, white synthetic polymer paint "Ian.W.Abdulla. 19-95".
Mollie Gowing Acquisition Fund for Contemporary Aboriginal Art 1996
Accession number
© Estate of Ian W. Abdulla
Not on display
Further information

lan Abdulla's paintings vividly recall his childhood memories of the peripatetic life of the Ngarrindjeri people of the Riverland region in rural South Australia. A hallmark of his work is the juxtaposition of text and image against a flattened foreground, in the manner of an animated narrative. Abdulla's handpainted annotations are placed dead centre at the top of his paintings, bringing a personal inflection to his stories. His experiences are shared by many Aboriginal people dispossessed of their land and marginalised into a life of seasonal work and scavenging. Yet, as 'Swimming before school', 1995, reveals, Abdulla's richly detailed paintings offer a sense of community despite the hardships of working for a subsistence livelihood on the fringes of a wealthy white farming community. The rapid degradation of the natural resources of the region, and encroaching westernisation of Nunga communities are also as subtly constant as the ubiquitous Murray River.

From his participation in a community screen-printing workshop in Glossop in 1988, Abdulla's transition to painting and increasing prominence is similar to that of many Aboriginal artists from rural or urban communities who have found a voice in the visual arts. Abdulla's work came to national attention during his first solo exhibition in 1991 at the newly established Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide. By actively supporting the artists of its Indigenous constituency, Tandanya was critical in the fostering of the impressive talents of Nunga artists. In 1993, Abdulla exhibited jointly with Wiradjuri artist, H.J. Wedge, at Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Cooperative, Sydney. An artist-run centre, Boomalli was set up in 1987 by a group of ten Sydney-based Aboriginal artists.

Abdulla has also produced three autobiographical picture books, and undertaken commissions for 'Beyond the Pale: Adelaide Biennial of Australian art', curated by Brenda L. Croft in 2000, and the Melbourne Museum. For these projects, he created three-dimensional installations that appear as natural evolutions of his paintings. In 1991 Abdulla was named South Australian Aboriginal Artist of the Year, and was awarded an Australia Council Fellowship in 1992. As these awards and his work testify, lan Abdulla is now counted as one of the leading figures in the flourishing of Indigenous art from Australia's rural communities.

Hetti Perkins in 'Tradition today: Indigenous art in Australia', Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2004

© Art Gallery of New South Wales

Bibliography (6)

Edmund Capon, Steven Miller, Tony Tuckson, James Scougall, Mollie Gowing, Harry Messel, Craig Brush, Ronald Fine, Alison Fine, Gordon Davies, Rosalind Davies, Christopher Hodges, Helen Eager, Rosemary Gow, Sandra Phillips, Daphne Wallace and Ken Watson, Gamarada, Sydney, 1996, 52 (colour illus.).

Bruce James, Art Gallery of New South Wales handbook, 'Australian Collection: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art', pg. 208-241, Sydney, 1999, 239 (colour illus.).

Karen Mills, One sun one moon: Aboriginal art in Australia, ‘The politics of painting: Community, culture, country’, pg. 295-303, Sydney, 2007, 300 (colour illus.).

Hetti Perkins, Look, 'One sun one moon', pg. 22-27, Newtown, Jun 2007, 22 (colour illus.), 23.

Hetti Perkins, Tradition today: Indigenous art in Australia, 'Ian Abdulla', pg. 22, Sydney, 2004, 22 (colour illus.), 23 (colour illus., detail).

Jane Wynter, Look, 'Mollie and Jim Gowing's lasting legacy', pg. 12, Newtown, Nov 2010, 12 (colour illus.).

Exhibition history (3)

Gamarada, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 15 Nov 1996–16 Feb 1997

Title Deeds: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Works from the Collection, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 05 Jul 2000–05 Nov 2000

One sun, one moon, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 03 Jul 2007–02 Dec 2007